I, together with two of the founders of our environmental NGO Mother Nature, stand accused as accomplices to the offence under Article 424 of “threatening to commit destruction followed by an order”. This charge, carries a prison sentence of up to two years and a fine. Foreigners such as I, also face a potential lifelong ban on returning to Cambodia.
As you will surely recall, just under one year ago the Cambodian government decided to deny me a new visa, after which I was detained and swiftly thrown out of the country. That was despite a nationwide wave of support from the Cambodian people, asking the government to allow me to stay.
Having been living in Cambodia for 13 years, I had made the effort to learn its language, culture and traditions. I managed to fall utterly in love with the country and its people, so much so that I cannot to this day stop myself from considering myself a true Cambodian.
Though construction of the dam was, very soon after I was exiled, put on the back burner by the prime minister, Mother Nature’s mission to put an end to the systematic destruction of our country’s natural resources continued expanding.
In April 2014, we decided it was time to turn the spotlight on the totally unacceptable, illegal and highly destructive sand-mining that had been going on in Koh Kong’s precious estuaries, for far too long. Mother Nature activists started implementing the very same strategies that had worked so well in the campaign to stop the Areng dam: community empowerment, mobilisation of local communities, innovative usage of social media, and above all, bravery. All of this done in line with our strict adherence to the principle of total nonviolence.
The campaign soon proved its worth as the government was forced to open its eyes and see that there was something very seriously wrong with this entire sand mining business. The licences for two of these companies were quietly withdrawn.
However, the repression against Mother Nature soon intensified and took on an entirely new level. Three of our staff members, San Mala, Sim Somnang and Try Sovikea, were arrested, charged with a crime they didn’t commit and put in pretrial detention.
They have now been in jail, awaiting trial, for half a year. Surely a message by powerful interest groups to the growth of the environmental movement that this country has seen flourish in recent years? Is this their way of saying, that “this is what happens to groups who are prepared to question and challenge the destruction of Cambodia’s natural heritage by vested interests”?
I am accused as an accomplice to the same “crime” as these three Mother Nature activists. Being a part of a group that is effectively saving our battered and fast disappearing natural resources, in the perverted eyes of some, means being an “accomplice to a crime”. How sad, and how unfair.
The right of a person who stands accused, to defend themselves in a court of law, is a founding principle of law the world over. The Cambodian Constitution, (Article 38), the procedures of the Criminal Code of Cambodia (Article 300), and several international mechanisms to which Cambodia is a signatory, chiefly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 14), all guarantee this principle.
I am concentrating all my efforts on ensuring that my fundamental and inalienable rights will be respected in regards to these charges and the upcoming trial. This includes the right to be present, physically, in the court proceedings, so that I can defend myself, as well as the other accused, against these fabricated and baseless charges. It would clearly be illegal not to allow me to be able to defend myself in person.
Is this fully recognised by those who have pressed these charges? Are they now ready to uphold this important principle by providing me with entry into Cambodia?
In the next few days and weeks, I will do my utmost to see my rights to receive a fair trial respected by the Cambodian government and Koh Kong’s court.
I hope that civil society, including those groups that were so vociferous back in February 2015 when they demanded that my visa was renewed, rally behind this decision. I hope that embassies and delegations of the countries which are constantly demanding that the Cambodian government respects the rule of law, rally behind this decision.
Finally, I hope that Cambodian people, who have given me so much over the last 13 years and to whom I will be forever grateful, rally behind this decision.
Founder and executive director of Mother Nature Organization.